Monthly Archives: June 2021

‘Caroline’s Dilemma’ by Bettina Bradbury

2019, 352 p.

‘Ruling from the grave’ seems a particularly insidious form of personal power, as Caroline Kearney found out as a 31 year old widow with six children. She had immigrated to Australia with her family from England as a 17 year old, and married Edward Kearney, a Catholic Irishman who had left his family back in Ireland when he settled in Australia. After farming in South Australia and then the Wimmera in Victoria, Caroline expected that her sons would inherit the family property. It was only when her husband died in October 1865 that she learned that the inheritance, for both herself and her children, depended on her shifting to Ireland and raising the children there as a widow, under the guidance and oversight of her very Catholic -inlaws. She was English: she had never been to Ireland, and all her children had been born in Australia. A dilemma indeed.

It says much for this book that I’m not going to tell you any more. The decisions made and tactics deployed by both Caroline and the Kearney family lie at the heart of this narrative, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment by telling you what happened.

Bettina Bradbury is a New Zealand-born historian, who spends much of her time in Australia. She has spent much of her academic life in Canada, writing women’s and family history and her most recent book Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal won multiple awards. It was in widening her lens to look at marriage, property and inheritance in the British Empire more generally that she encountered Caroline Kearney. She found the reports of Caroline’s contest against the will in the Victorian Law Reports, and scrawled “Wow, draconian patriarch” and “controlling father too” across her copy. Fascinated by the case, and the ways in which it embodied the themes she wanted to explore, she put aside the broader book she planned, and concentrated on Caroline instead.

Although she acknowledges the assistance she received from two great-great-grandchildren of Caroline and Edward, this is not your usual family-history search narrative, freighted with family identity and identification. That is not to say that Bradbury was not emotionally invested: her loyalties clearly lie with Caroline and other women whose financial rights were circumscribed by property and inheritance law until Married Women’s Property Acts were legislated across the British Empire. But she brings to this case study her historian’s eye, conscious of context and the norm, and alert to the anomalous and unusual. Her extensive bibliography (how lucky she is to have footnotes AND index AND separate bibliography!) reveals the breadth of her sources: newspapers, genealogical information, legal documentation, secondary sources and an unpublished family history, written by one of Caroline’s sons explaining his family upbringing. These sources enable her to focus in closely on Caroline’s case, but then step back to take a wider perspective. In this way, we roam across emigration history, pastoral history, 19th century legal principles, sectarianism, social history, women’s rights, paternalism and history of the family more generally.

Bradbury is present throughout the narrative, interjecting “I” observations at various places. She is open in admitting where the sources fail her, and where she has had to turn to imagination and empathy instead. While her sympathies clearly lie with Caroline, she is not unaware of her foibles. From the perspective of more than a century later, mis-steps and wrong turns become clearer, but not more explicable. In some of the twists and turns of the story, Bradbury is incredulous – wondering whether the person named in a document really is ‘her’ person because their actions seem so discordant. I guess that it’s the difference between a life lived, with all its contradictions and compromises, and a life documented in the flat and abbreviated historical record.

Bradbury has hit the sweet spot between an engaging narrative history and insightful analysis with this book. Because the two are interwoven so seamlessly throughout the text, I was a little disappointed in the ending, which was a ‘what happened next’ follow-through with the members of the family. While I did want to know what became of the children, this section was necessarily more cursory in its treatment, and became rather too much of a genealogical run-through. There was a short, more analytic summary in the closing pages, but I would have preferred that it was longer, with a wider scope.

This book was shortlisted for the 2020 Ernest Scott History Prize, which is awarded to “the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” Its span and its strong tethering in the carefully-documented sources give it historical “chops” but it’s a very human, sensitive story as well, told with discernment and compassion.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy from New South books. Also available from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria bookshop

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 June 2021

Booktopia I’ve just finished re-reading Helen Garner’s The First Stone and while looking for current reviews of the 25th Anniversary edition, I see that Virginia Trioli has also had her riposte, Generation F republished. In We Forget More Than We Remember, Trioli talks about why she wrote the book originally, and how it has been vindicated by recent events with the MeToo movement.

Dan Snow’s History Hit. Wooahh! This is weird! The History of Head Transplants tells the story of a series of successful head transplants on monkeys during the 1970s conducted by Dr Robert J. White. Brandy Schillace, the author of Mr Humble and Dr Butcher tells of how these experiments, which were prompted by Soviet advances during the Cold War, resulted in head transplants in monkeys where the monkey’s brain survived for 9 days with signs of brain activity (but not sensory activity). Interestingly, when White and other scientists spoke of transplanting heads on monkeys, they talked about it as a ‘head transplant’; if they were talking about a tetraplegic human, they would call it a ‘body transplant’. Really weird.

The Thread. We’ve heard quite a bit about the Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened 100 years ago last month. But I haven’t heard anything about the Election Day Massacre on Election Day 1920 in Ocoee, Florida, just a few kilometres from Disneyland. They are running a three-part series on the Thread, and Episode 1 sets the scene for the election. The 14th amendment had just been passed, and women were voting for the first time. Black servicemen were returning from WWI, and there had been a concerted voter registration drive, led by wealth African-American businessmen Mose Norman and July Perry. Before the vote, the Klan had paraded through the streets, and direct threats were made against the Republican (white) candidate, who was encouraging blacks to vote. When Mose Norman turned up to vote, he was accused of not paying his poll tax (as if!- he’d been paying the poll tax for many black people who couldn’t afford it). Norman returned to the polling booth with a shot gun, but was driven away again. After the polls closed, a white mob formed and went looking for Mose Norman at July Perry’s house. And that’s where Episode 1 leaves us.

The Documentary (BBC) Continuing on with the series Syria’s decade of conflict: Islamic State’s most wanted this episode tells of four young Syrian men, fond of drinking, music and chasing girls, who began writing and filming the reality of daily life in Raqqa, Syria to counter the propaganda that ISIS was putting online. ISIS put a bounty on their heads, and when they couldn’t get them, ISIS went for their families. This was produced some years ago: the men are still in hiding in Europe and America.

China If You’re Listening (ABC) I think that I have a Nana-crush on Matt Bevan (eeeyyyyeeewww! he would surely say!) I make sure that I’m awake by 6.40 every morning so that I can hear his analysis on some piece of the news, and I have followed his earlier podcasts Russia If You’re Listening and then America If You’re Listening. Now he turns his attention to China, and it’s fascinating. Episode 1 Xi Jinping: the ‘Man of Destiny’ looks at the lifestory of Xi Jinping and how it interweaves with 20th century Chinese history. Episode 2: How Tiananmen is being repeated in Xinjiang goes over the Australian response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the Australian response. Who can forget Bob Hawke’s response? – well, perhaps it wasn’t all that it seemed in the bonus episode The story behind Bob Hawke’s mysterious Tiananmen Cable. Episode 3 The iron chain between Australia and China he explores the Great Leap Forward – I had no idea that the famine it prompted was so brutal – and how it prompted Australia’s iron ore boom. I must confess to being not particularly attracted to Asian history, but this is fascinating.

‘Return to Uluru’ by Mark McKenna

2021, 214p

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respectfully advised that this publication contains names and images of deceased persons and culturally sensitive information.

Wow. It is June, but I predict now that this will be the best book I read all year.

In 1934, when the events in this book took place, white Australians didn’t speak of Uluru. Instead it was Ayers Rock, and few people ever saw it. Since then, it has loomed large in the Australian imagination: Lindy and Azaria Chamberlain, that Qantas advertisement “still calling Australia home” filmed on top of it, the controversy over the closure of the walk, and most recently the Uluru Statement from the Heart (which we seem content to praise for its lyricism while the government and conservative media sidle away from its content). Uluru is seen as the ‘heart’ of the Australian desert and an immediately recognizable image.

But it has a darker history, that McKenna explores in this book. In 1934, Anangu man Yokununna was shot in a cave nestling within Uluru by Northern Territory policeman Bill McKinnon. McKinnon was lauded by those purveyors of the image of the Wild Outback – think Frank Clunes, think Northern Territory politicians – as a ‘man’s man’ from the days when ‘the blacks’ needed a strong hand.

A Board of Enquiry was set up into the shooting. It had an interesting composition. It was headed by John Cleland, Professor of Pathology and the University of Adelaide; Vin White, recently appointed Assistant Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory; John Sexton, Baptist preacher and secretary of the South Australian Aborigines’ Friends’ Association, Charles Mountford, amateur anthropologist, and Ted Strehlow, the young linguist (p.84). Amazingly, this Board of Enquiry actually travelled to ‘Ayers Rock’ and the site of the shooting, an arduous journey by jeep and camel over sandhills, staying at camps and stations along the way. Even more amazingly, along with his aboriginal tracker, McKinnon himself accompanied them as accused, cook and guide. By the campfire at night, he would regale them with his stories of the outback by camel. At the rock, he exhumed Yokununna’s body and packed it for return to Adelaide, a process that appalled Strehlow, and shaped his views of British justice for the rest of his life (p.96). The Board of Enquiry came to its decision. It was the 1930s: I think that you know the result, although it was more nuanced than you might think.

The story of the shooting and Bill McKinnon takes up a large chunk of this book, with the ‘Lawman’ section taking up 90 pages. Here McKenna tells McKinnon’s story, painting for us the picture of a hard-bitten, laconic, tough policeman not opposed to roughing-up the men he arrested, punctilious in his record keeping, and a keen photographer. It is followed by another weighty section ‘Uluru’ which is 60 pages in length. Here McKenna himself steps into the picture, an academic historian, alternately drawn to and repelled by McKinnon’s ‘type’. I sometimes bridle at the historian-as-detective trope that is used to pump up the narrative in order to make a history more ‘saleable’, but here it is absolutely justified. Coming to a case some 80 years later, and in a world where the politics of indigenous history are changing but still contested, McKenna tracks down some interesting leads and sources, some of which make him reflect on the sheer, remorseless plunder of indigenous country, others which challenge the ethics of doing history. I think that it says something about the power of this book that I don’t want to tell you about the twists and turns his research takes- I want you to read the book yourself.

In a way, the murders in this book feel a long way away. They seem encapsulated by the shorts and pith helmet that McKinnon adopted, and the racist “dying pillow” tropes of the past. Then you see a video of one of the witnesses on YouTube and you realize that this is not so far away.

This is a beautifully written, and beautifully presented book. I didn’t expect a page-turner, but I found one. Nor did I expect to find so many photographs, some taken by McKinnon, others taken by McKenna himself and so many beautifully produced maps. In his afterword, McKenna explains that in embarking on the book, he intended to write a companion book to his earlier From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. That 2016 book explored four places on the littoral edge of the continent, that also hovered on the edge of Australia’s historical consciousness at the time. With this book, he moved from the edge into the heart of the country- until McKinnon’s story ‘hijacked’ his intention. He promises a third book, more personal in focus, about places he has lived in Australia and overseas, encapsulating his research and thinking over the last decade (p.215). I suspect that it will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, this book should win the Prime Ministers Prize for Australian History. I won’t hold my breath for that one.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Amnesia Road’ by Luke Stegemann

2021, 267p.

South-western Queensland and the rural backlands of Andalusia in Spain are two landscapes and histories that rarely mentioned in the same breath. However, they are not dissimilar to look at: indeed, the image on the front cover could be of Australia’s red centre or the arid desert regions of Andalusia. I suspect by the red tones that suffuse the photograph that it is of Australia, but blood is red too, and it has soaked into the landscape of both settings. In Queensland there were the barely acknowledge massacres of indigenous Australians as settlers moved westward; in Andalusia, there were the bloody atrocities on both sides during the Spanish Civil War.

There are few other people whose knowledge spans both locations, apart from fleeting visits by most travellers. This is where Hispanist and cultural historian Luke Stegemann comes in. He travels the backroads of Queensland as a boxing referee, while he refers to Spain as his ‘second patria‘. Deeply familiar with both, he brings them together in what is described as a “literary examination” of landscape, violence and memory in the two places.

He doesn’t actually describe what a “literary examination” or a “literary meditation” is, but I assume that it is a drawing together of the visions of other writers about an event or place. Certainly, he does reference other authors, but this is no mere desktop activity. He physically visits many of the places that he writes about, mainly as an outside observer. He marries the literary and experiential into a discursive, poetic, beautifully shaped exploration of questions about the memories that a landscape can hold, and the tenacity with which those memories take hold, despite the tacit or overt agreement to deny them.

This book employs two scenarios- the mid-nineteenth century pastoral frontier of south-west Queensland, and a series of early twentieth-century civilian massacres in southern Spain – as pathways towards examining the ways history is turned over and inspected, sometimes with fascination, sometimes with disgust, and its angles then polished for specific cultural and political purposes. Both scenarios are at the centre of contemporary debates around the need to tell, and approved methods of telling, troubled – perhaps better to say infamous – aspects of national history.


The opening chapters wrestle with the ideas of memory and forgetting, memorializing through graveyards and forgetting through unnamed massacre sites. He shuttles between Australia and Spain, using the writing from one culture to illuminate the other. In places this seems like a linguistic game, with chapters titled ‘The verb that has no name’ or ‘The Language of Eden’. The passing of generations and their knowledge is described grammatically:

The past tense soon closes down the present perfect nature of that claim: people have seen becomes, forever, people saw. Descendants remain, but the last of the witnesses are gone. The final death is often unremarked for who knows who is the last of the witnesses?…Each day, each year, each decade, periods of history move further away and we are left with an imperfect detritus. Windows are closed, doors shut, voices silenced, graves sealed.


The book is mainly based on the Australian experience, with the Iberian example used as a point of both comparison and contrast. The heart of the book lies in the two long chapters ‘Threnody’ (which I confess I had to look up – it means “a wailing ode, song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person”) and ‘Iberian Hinterland’.

The ‘Threnody’ chapter, at 50 pages, has the structure of a guided tour across the landscape of south-west Queensland. At each stop, he gives us a description of the landscape and a short history of the ‘interactions’ that took place there. He intersperses this with the local and amateur histories of these places, which generally celebrate the ‘progress’ of settlement and the ‘success’ of ‘dispersal’.

We have a duty to look unsparingly at the acts committed. We can now both see and understand the absurd vanity of the acquisitive graziers, to say nothing of the wretched illegality of their land grabs; nevertheless our contemporary morality is of limited use in grappling with this history. Unavoidably, the expansion of the Europeans across south-west Queensland involved tremendous cruelty and episodes of outright violence that mark our national history, though this fact must be tempered with the knowledge of acts of tenderness and attempts at understanding on both sides, and what were often immediate and close relationships between Indigenous people and settlers.

p. 85

Nonetheless, as he points out, in order to considered these acts of goodwill, “it is first necessary to climb over the bodies. The toll cannot be avoided.” P. 118 On the Massacre Map produced by the University of Newcastle, the area of South West Queensland is not studded with dots (as the coastal areas are) but when you do click on the massacres, they are of huge numbers of people. I have read of frontier violence before, but it was generalIy deployed against small groups of warriors, or family groups of women and children. I hadn’t imagined 300 people being massacred, as at Bulloo River. Imagine it. The vision is horrifying.

In the succeeding ‘Iberian Hinterland’ chapter, at 63 pages in length, he takes a similar approach, although here he overlays the bloody Civil War history with the tourist itinerary, which exists largely oblivious to what happened less than a century before. I remember reading in the guide book that I took with me to Andalusia just a few years ago, there was still sensitivity about the Civil War, and to not ask pointed questions. But unlike the anonymity and paucity of Indigenous deaths in Australia, there is “a paper trail and a line of bones” that testify to a national total of some 115,000 murdered behind nationalist lines, and 55,000 behind Republican lines (p.135). With the passing of the Law of Historic Memory in 2007 there has been a deliberate political decision that the tacit silence about this slaughter will be broken; that bodies will be exhumed; that Franco will be shifted from the Valley of the Fallen to a private family vault.

Just as there is no turning away from the brutal slaughter of Indigenous people in south-west Queensland, there is no turning away from the indiscriminate killing of tens of thousands of innocent people in the first months of Spain’s civil conflict. And it has been the slow revelation of these details, the political environment into which they have been released, and the arguments they have triggered around questions of memory, truth, justice, compensation and reconciliation, and where these might find their place in a modern democracy, that have added weight to what might otherwise have been just one more collection of twentieth-century bones- anonymous, roadside or forest-deep- abandoned to their violent quiet.

p. 137

Stegemann sees a similar movement at work here in Australia too, as the Great Australian Silence (in Stanner’s words) is finally being broken down. In particular he points to the Uluru Statement (awarded the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize but still shamefully suspended in limbo four years later). But he points out that reconciliation is hard work. The passing and implementation of the Law of Historic Memory in Spain has been fraught, and is likely to become even more so with the rise of populism. In Australia, the ideological ravine scours ever deeper with social media and a shrill press.

This really is a beautifully written book. You could open any page and find a paragraph that is beautifully crafted and insightful. It has high expectations of the reader. The dual emphasis on Indigenous Australia and Andalusia particularly appealed to me because my interests align along those tracks as well, but also because it illustrates the way that our learning in one field illuminates and enriches the other fields of knowledge that we encounter.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 June 2021

New Books Network. It doesn’t occur to me often to look for Australian histories on this site, but there are some! This podcast Australian Jurists and Christianity features Prof. Wayne Hudson, who co-edited the book along with Geoff Lindsay. He doesn’t so much talk about individual jurists featured in the book (from Macquarie, James Stephen, Higgins, Higinbotham, Gough Whitlam, Michael Kirby) but more about the relationship between religion and politics in Australia. I found him rather patronizing and sweeping in his pronouncements, and it didn’t particularly encourage me to read the book – and at $99.00, I’m not likely to buy it.

The Latin American History Podcast. We’re getting near the end now. In The Conquest of Mexico Part 12 there’s a whole string of people whose names I can’t remember, one of the remaining chiefs is accused of treachery and killed, and really…it’s just looting and conquest now. I’m glad there’s only one more episode. I’m a bit lost, to be honest.

The Documentary (BBC) There’s going to be a series of these replays of broadcasts Syria’s decade of conflict. I have Syrian neighbours and I know so little about their previous life. This episode Syria’s Secret Library was recorded in 2016, when the town of Darayya was besieged by Syrian government troops. There was a secret library hidden in a basement, and in the midst of hunger and the dropping of barrel bombs, people went there to read. In an update at the end we learn that, once the siege ended, the library was discovered and the books sold off in markets.

Travels Through Time In this podcast, a historian chooses a particular year and three dates within that year in order to talk about their recent book. In this case, it’s The Lost History of Mary Davies, who at the age of 6 months, inherited the Manor of Ebury after her father died in the Plague. This Manor included Park Lane and Mayfair. When she married Sir William Grosvenor at 12 years of age, her lands were merged with his properties which now comprise central London. When he died when she was about 35, she had already converted to Catholicism and went off to Rome, became entangled in a spurious marriage, and became mentally ill. A rather sad story, told in the speaker, Leo Hollis’ book Inheritance: The lost history of Mary Davies. Actually, I’m hearing about lots of good books in this series.

Heather Cox Richardson And there I was, thinking that Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ was original. There was an earlier ‘pivot to Asia’ after the Civil War, when the Republicans had the pip with Europe because they felt that they had supported the Confederates. So, they decided with the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, to give each other Favoured Nation status to China. But it was pretty much gutted by the passing of the Chinese Restriction Act which passed on May 6, 1882, which is why she did this podcast on 7th May. Actually, it was interesting listening to the American response to the Chinese, both during the Californian goldrush and then in the 1880s and compare it with Australia’s racial policies.

Rear Vision (ABC) I’m glad that there is more attention being paid to Morrison’s Pentecostalism. As an ex-born-again myself who sometimes attended Pentecostal gatherings, I know that the world-view of Pentecostalism leaches into all aspects of life. I felt chilled by the idea of Morrison laying hands on unwitting citizens. The history of Pentecostalism is explored in Pentecostalism- the fastest growing religion on earth.

Psychedelics- the curious journey from medical lab to party drug and back again delivers just what it says- a study of how psychedelics started out as a pharmacologic treatment for mental illness until they were taken up by the counter-culture and came into the crosshairs of the Republican party. In recent years, they are again being investigated as a form of treatment.

‘A Thousand Moons’ by Sebastian Barry

2020, 251 p.


Obviously Sebastian Barry (middle-aged, White, Irish male) didn’t read the memo on cultural appropriation when he wrote this book in the narrative voice of a teenaged, lesbian Lakota girl.

I am Winona. In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose. Thomas McNulty tried very hard to say this name, but he failed, and so he gave me my dead cousin’s name because it was easier in his mouth. Winona means first-born. I was not first-born.


When we meet Winona, she has already been swept up into a white man’s world. And if you have read Barry’s earlier book Days without End, you have already met Winona, when she is adopted by Thomas McNulty and his Indian-heritage lover John Cole after her family is killed in a massacre attended by McNulty and Cole themselves. It is now 1870 and the unconventional family are living together on Lige Mangan’s tobacco farm outside Paris, Tennessee, along with former slaves Tennyson and Rosalee Bouguereau. Winona, growing into womanhood, is shyly entering into a naive and rather ambivalent engagement with Jas Jonski, a Polish boy who works at a nearby store. Plied with whisky, she is raped and does not even have the words for what has happened to her. Nor can she remember who raped her, and her shame and uncertainty triggers off a cascade of other events.

The Civil War might be over and the Union may have won, but racism and menace are quickly rising in this former Confederate area, especially for ‘others’: Native Americans, freed slaves and even Union soldiers – especially if their homosexuality became public knowledge . I’ve been listening to Heather Cox Richardson’s series on Reconstruction, but history alone cannot capture the feeling of impotence against the night-riders and the inexorable closing in of racism clothed in official dress, as positions at the head of militias and the courts are turned over to racists. The ‘goodies’ are not always good: nor are the ‘baddies’ completely bad.

This book is part of the McNulty/Dunne family that Barry has been exploring through his fiction over many years. In many of these books, the connection is only by surname and a bit of back history. This book, however, is more closely tied to Days without End. I can only imagine that new readers would be baffled by the cross-dressing and loving relationship between McNulty and Cole, and backwards references to murder and jail.

When you think about it, Barry really is pushing the boundaries of plausibility with a homosexual adoptive couple, an adopted Lakota daughter, and then her falling in love with another young Native American girl. That he manages to do this so quietly and naturally speaks to the complexity of his characters and the contradictions of the world that they face. My reading of this book was really enhanced by my recent listening to podcasts about Reconstruction, and I think that I enjoyed it even more than Days without End.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle De Kretser

2012, 515 p.


I come to this book nine years after it was published. It comes garlanded with prizes: The 2013 Miles Franklin; the Prime Ministers Literary Award, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and shortlisted for the inaugural Stella Prize. How does it stand up, almost a decade later?

It is a long book at just over 500 pages, and I was reading it under pressure for a looming book group meeting. Five hundred pages is a hefty tome, but if you asked me to summarize the book, it really comes down to two rather simple stories.

Australian Laura Fraser is the large, ungainly daughter in a wealthy family, who spends much of her early adulthood travelling abroad. Tiring of travel, she returns to Australia and begins working Ramsay Publishing, a travel guide publishing company in competition with Lonely Planet, while renting small rooms on the upper storeys of an old ramshackle Harbourside house, owned by an elderly man with a large, untidy collection of paintings by deceased artist, Hugo Drummond. She is largely rootless: she owns no property, and has a strings of affairs with unavailable, married men, dalliances with older men and infatuations with gay men.

In the other story, Sri Lankan Ravi emigrates to Australia as a refugee after his wife and son are found murdered in mysterious circumstances that hint of official and police involvement and cover up. Although, as a Sinhalese Ravi was not in political danger, as he might have been had he been Tamil, his wife had been a Human Rights activist. Shifting from house to house, and disguising himself as a tourist in Colombo, one of his wife’s activist friends arranges for him to fly to Australia on a tourist visa, with a view to seeking asylum after arrival, hence avoiding the detention scheme for refugees who arrived by boat. He is a rather passive and ambivalent refugee, confounding our easy assumptions about ‘real’ asylum seekers.

The book follows the trajectory of these two main characters from the 1960s through to 2004. The narrative is often quotidian yet detailed, and there were many times when I wondered where (if anywhere) this book was going. The descriptions are so clear that you can almost see them in your mind’s eye, even though I had not been to many of the places described. They combine everyday, unexceptional life with large, explosive world events that occur off-stage – the death of Princess Diana, 9/11 etc. Big events occur, completely without warning or emphasis, and you find yourself re-reading to make sure that what you thought happened, actually did. As a reader, you develop a warmth towards this large, essentially aimless girl, and this man, traumatized by the deaths of his wife and child who somehow seemed more loveable to him once they had died. The book plaits the two stories, one over the other, and any expectation that somehow they are going to merge in some large plot development is disappointed. The action that moves the book forward is everyday and largely inconsequential, within a framework of larger, international events. Both Laura and Ravi are rootless, even though they are both drawn ‘home’.

This pointillist, rather aimless structure plays out de Kretser’s larger argument about “the question of travel”. As her character Laura observes, much of travel involves just hanging around, doing nothing, waiting for the next thing – just like in this book. Laura works at a ‘travel’ book publishing company, priding itself on supporting ‘travel’ rather than the more grubby, commercial ‘tourism’ – but where does the difference lie? Is it ever possible to have an ‘authentic’ travel experience, or does authenticity lie in the everyday and banal? How has the internet, the development of which she traces in this book, changed the nature of travel when experiences can be rendered digitally? And what of those who choose to travel, as distinct from those who are forced to travel?

I don’t really know what to think about this book. At over 500 pages, it was very long and much of the book consists of rather banal detail. Events land unexpectedly, just as in real life. Some change the whole trajectory of the book; others are absorbed into the flow. I found myself thinking of the book as a type of mosaic. Each little tile by itself is inconsequential, and yet the connection of each little tile contributes to a bigger picture. I suspect that the details of this book have wormed themselves into my consciousness far more than I realize, and that my appreciation of the book will grow, rather than diminish, over time. It is beautifully and intelligently written, and you could choose any page at random and find a sentence that captures an image with crystal clarity or skewers an observation with a spiky, mordant wit. Just like when travelling, much of it was boring and inconsequential. And, much like when travelling, the experience of reading afforded by this book creates something much bigger than its parts.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup. My bookgroup was divided in its opinion.

I have included this on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 May 2021

Duolingo. These are joint Spanish/English podcasts, but you would get the gist of the podcast even if you can’t speak Spanish. Buscando a los 33 (Looking for the 33) is about the rescue of 33 miners who were trapped in a copper mine in the Atacama Desert in Chile in 2010. It is told by a young woman, Sandra Jara, who worked with the software to determine where to drill to find the tunnel in which it was hoped the miners were sheltering after the mine collapse. They were finally rescued after 2 months.

Travels Through Time. I read Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain before I visited Andalusia in the days when you could still travel. In this episode The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Tremlett chooses the year 1936, when the civil war broke out. He chooses July 19 1936 in Barcelona, on the day when Franco’s failed coup reaches Barcelona; October 10 in Paris when the poets and artists are milling around the Quai d’Orsay railway station, waiting to travel to Marseilles, and November 8 when the same people are now marching up the Gran Via in Madrid to the University City. His book The International Brigades, Fascism, Freedom and The Spanish Civil War sounds a good, but hefty (800 page) read.

Fifteen Minute History. It really IS a 15 minute episode this time. I’m on a bit of a Spanish Civil War kick at the moment. Foreign Fighters in the Spanish Civil War features Lisa Kirschenbaum who wrote  International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity and Suspicion (Cambridge University Press 2015). Her focus seems to be on individuals who joined the International Brigade- not the poets, but the Communist Party members from America and European countries, following them through to their post-Civil War lives.

My Marvellous Melbourne This rather scratchy episode, Jewish Melbourne in the Nineteenth Century was recorded from a virtual seminar hosted by the Australian Jewish Historical Society on 20 August 2020. In it Sue Silberberg talks about her new book A Networked Community: Jewish Melbourne in the Nineteenth Century. She points out that most of the Jews who emigrated to Melbourne were English-speaking, and that they did not face the many political and cultural barriers that Jews in other countries did. And quite a few of them were Masons, which I didn’t realize. It sounds an interesting book. Just add that one to the To-Be-Read pile

Witness to Yesterday. This is a Canadian podcast, presented by the Champlain Society, whose mission is “deepening awareness of Canada’s documentary past and of the people who created it”. Beauty Contests and Settler Femininity is based on Patrizia Gentile’s book Queen of the Maple Leaf: Beauty Contests and Settler Femininity. The author talks about ‘settler femininity’ as the way that beauty contests championed the idea of the nation of Canada, both geographically and in terms of the shared identities of the participants (I think that’s what she said). She goes back to the 1920s in her analysis, although the trademarks of various beauty contests were not sold until the 1940s. She notes the paradox that the organizers of pageants clearly declaimed that they are not beauty contests, when they obviously are. An interesting concept- I wonder if a study of Australian beauty contests would come up with different findings?

Rough Translation is presenting a called Home/Front in their new season. It’s about the divide between the military and civilian population. Now only 1% of American families have a direct contact with someone in the military, and they are deployed for one tour after another because there are so few serving. I must admit that I know only one person who has served in the military. I don’t know if there’s much that can be said about the topic beyond this introduction, so I probably won’t persist with it.

How It Happened. This is a podcast by Jonathan Swan (son of Dr. Norman Swan). He hasn’t posted anything for a while after a series describing the last days of Trump’s presidency. But he recently added this podcast Trump’s Last Stand: An Off-The-Books Mission about Trump’s ad-hoc decision to withdraw all the troops from Afghanistan- something that he had wanted to do from the start. But not like this- and he was talked out of it, only to have Joe Biden announce it instead.

Archive on 4 (BBC) The presenter of The Tulsa Tragedy that Shamed America hadn’t heard of it, even though he grew up as part of the black community in Oklahoma (I had- thank you Heather Cox Richardson). It’s the centenary today (31 May) and this podcast has lots of oral histories recorded earlier this century with people who witnessed it as children. Apparently after the torching of the prosperous Black area of Greenwood in Tulsa, the suburb had rebuilt by the 1940s only to be decimated again by urban renewal, the placing of a freeway through the middle of it, and ironically, desegregation. For many years it was just not spoken of, by both white communities who threatened historians who spoke out, and black communities, who didn’t want later generations to be burdened by it.

‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein, 2020, 322 p.


A new Elena Ferrante book! I’ve just finished watching Season 2 of the television series ‘My Brilliant Friend’, which reminded me just why I loved the Neapolitan Quartet so much. Having snaffled this new one off the library shelves, I held off reading it until I finished the television show, fearing that I might become confused between the two. It was a good decision. Much as I love Elena Ferrante, there are many – possibly rather too many – similarities between the Neapolitan Quartet and this new book.

Giovanna is an only child, living in one of the upper class suburbs above Naples, the daughter of two teachers. At the age of twelve, and in trouble because of her poor grades and attitude at school, she overhears her father complaining that “she’s getting the face of Vittoria”. Vittoria is her father’s estranged sister, who still lives in the industrial area of Naples, down in the valley below, from which her father had escaped. Hurt and defiant, she decides to seek out this aunt, whom she barely knows, as a way of resisting her parents and finding her own identity.

She learns that the definitive break between her father and her aunt occurred over Vittoria’s affair with a married man, Enzo, who later died leaving his wife Margherita, and three children Tonino, Guiliana and Corrado. Both Vittoria and Margherita mourned the same man, and created an odd alliance where Vittoria was known as ‘Aunt Vittoria’ to Enzo’s children. In developing her relationship with her aunt, Giovanna is drawn into this unusual family circle and their friends as well.

At the same time, her own small family splinters as her father leaves her mother to move in with Costanza, the wife of a former colleage and close family friend. Giovanna in effect inherits two step-sisters, Ida and Angela, with whom she was already close.

As with the Neapolitan Quartet books, Ferrante is so good at capturing adolescent female friendships, and the physical awkwardness and fervour of changing bodies. As with My Brilliant Friend, there is a friendship that shifts between intimacy and betrayal; there is an intelligent young girl who drifts away from and later embraces her intellectual aptitude; there is an academic male over whom the main character and her friend compete; there is fascination coupled with revulsion against men, their testosterone-driven sexuality and their power; and again there is the industrial area of Naples (now seared in my mind by the television series, and completely different from how I pictured it when I was reading the original Neapolitan books).

There is an element of fairy tale here too, in the form of a family bracelet with a provenance that reflects the evasions and untruths that Giovanna learns all adults generate. So too, Giovanna, as a seventeen year old, learns to lie and betray as she steps into her own adult world, replicating many of the entanglements that her own family members perpetrated before her.

The ending surprised me – why did she do that? – and I wonder if this is not the first book in another quartet. Does it matter if this book is so similar to the other books for which Ferrante has become so well-known?After all, Jane Austen mined similar characters and social settings for many of her books. Is it a stretch to link Austen and Ferrante? I don’t think so. Both are brilliant in capturing the nuance and treachery of female friendship, and the experience of feeling your way into your identity within a network of expectations. And when the next Ferrante comes out, I’ll snaffle it off the shelf too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Six degrees of separation: from Bass Rock to….

First Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. To find out how it works, please check out Booksaremyfavouriteandbest where Kate hosts this meme. Basically, Kate chooses a starting book, then you think of other books that lead off from it.

This month Kate leads with Evie Wyld’s Bass Rock, which won the Stella Prize this year.

As usual, I haven’t read it, although I did read All the Birds, Singing which is set on a farm on a dour, dank, unnamed British island, and has the motif of birds running through it as the narrative switches between the island and outback Australia.

Another book with a bird theme running alongside another narrative is Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds, which I enjoyed much more than Wyld’s book. It, too, is set on a farm but this time in Cohuna in the 1950s with a soundtrack of magpies and kookaburras accompanying a story about neighbours. I described it in my review as quirky and sly.

Another quirky and sly book based on a ‘nature’ motif is Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, where an antipodean Scheherazade-like figure weaves stories from the landscape. Each story is named for one of the eucalyptus trees planted on a property. The first time I read it, I was underwhelmed: the second time I read it, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, both reads took place before I started my blog.

Speaking of trees, there’s Sophie Cunningham’s collection of essays, City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest. Each of the essays, many of which have been published elsewhere previously, is prefaced by a pencil sketch of a particular tree- the Coast Live Oak in America, the Giant Sequoia, the Ginkgo, Eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig, Coolibah etc. Then follows a short piece of writing about the tree, sometimes interwoven with personal reflection or historical anecdote. A more substantial essay then ensues, not necessarily closely related to the shorter preface.

Sophie Cunningham wrote about trees, but the mother in Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree climbed a tree instead, and there she received enlightenment, just as her son Sohrab was hanged under the instructions of the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Set in Iran, the book combines historical detail, magic realism and a family story.

Greengages are plums and that leads me to another even grimmer book, set this time in Ceausescu’s Romania. I found Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums oppressive and disturbing and rather unfortunately- very memorable, which is why it ended up on this list.

I seem to have alternated between darkness and light a bit here, and travelled from Scotland, the outback, Iran and Romania.